Stone fences make good labors

Granite boulders are a raw material that requires no intermediate step between harvest and building

How soon we forget the former landscape - the fact that it has been only a few generations since New England was largely unforested. Today, the fields and pastures of the settlers' small farms, etched into rocky hillsides and river-bottom land, have reverted to woods. Or subdivisions.

All that timber cleared by ax and sawn by hand! All those stumps uprooted with teams of oxen to make way for the plow! All those stones - "New England potatoes" - laboriously, annually, ritually piled on the verge as walls or assembled into ramps, foundations, retaining walls, stiles, and wells. They're "signifiers of industry, establishment, and prosperity," according to Kevin Gardner, dry-stone wall builder and the author of "The Granite Kiss."

These were the labors of my great-great grandfather, a farmer in Moose River, Maine. Yet by the time of my great-grandfather, a tool and die maker, the meaning of field stone walls had altered. They obstructed the mechanization of agriculture and its trend toward larger fields, open acreage. Then the stone walls were abandoned altogether as the industrialized society migrated away from working the land.

The 250,000 miles of stone walls in New England and New York were relegated to the status of mere archeological or emotional artifact. Or worse: They were crushed for paving roads, or "absorbed by the forest ... relics of a faded past."

In this beautifully produced book, Gardner reminds us that these stone walls are both "a cultural identifier as well as a landscaping option ... a visual antidote to the placelessness that afflicts so much contemporary design."

Like a Thoreauvian do-it-yourself guide, "The Granite Kiss" counsels us on the craft of fitting rock to rock to make all manner of ancient form, inducting us into the quirky family nomenclature for rock types (thrufters, cheap seducers, problemsolvers, puddle caps, backers) as well as the "backdrop and mystery" of the process of their assemblage: looking, gauging, fitting, thinking, knowing when to quit.

Most of stonework, Gardner suggests, takes place inside the stonemason. "Stone walls are hardly comfortable to build, but the pleasure they afford is visceral and addictive, the physical equivalent of gazing into a fire or producing a perfect sentence." His words are aligned and chinked into solid syntax with the balance and poise of his mortarless walls.

Gardner has that craggy New England mixture of pragmatist and esthete that can balance a generation's worth of apprenticeship on a semicolon: "Straight walls give instructions; curving walls, persuasion." Some phrases seem to come straight from Frost's "Mending Wall."

Ancient craft and regional land use aside, Gardner makes poignant analysis of our cultural appreciation of work and of this work. We are in danger of losing a particular craft handed down from generation to generation. And we are in danger of losing an appreciation of the slow labor of the hands. "The beauty of a good wall is an accumulation of small excellences, a deft, pleasing, personal pattern that can only be achieved one stone at a time."

Finally, "The Granite Kiss" is about affection: for a particular locale, for a place we build on and steward, and for the transaction with ourselves as we fumble toward creating order. "The beauty we perceive in the stone walls," Gardner concludes, "is a reflection of our love for our own capacities and for our long life on this astonishing earth. Walls make us see the land. They make us see where we live.... Build one yourself. You'll see." Gardner shows us how - and, more importantly, why.

Todd R. Nelson is assistant editor of Hope magazine.

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